Ex Machina (2015)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #472

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Number of Views: One
Release Date: 21 January 2015
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Budget: $15,000,000
Box Office: $36,900,000
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Special Effects: Richard Conway
Visual Effects: Sara Bennett, John Lockwood
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Score: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Editing: Mark Day
Studios: DNA Films, Film4, Scott Rudin Productions
Distributor: United Kingdom
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani, Elina Alminas

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“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Technology waits for no man. Right now, behind key encrypted doors, The future is likely becoming the present. Having grown up during the eighties, I remember how revolutionary Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man was. A marvel of modern technology, this was essentially a rat in a maze affair, although the impetus wasn’t on the plucky rodent. A.I. was what really set it apart, a computerized opponent which made it its mission solely to track you down before you reached that elusive power pill and turned the tables. I recall marvelling at modern technology and thinking “it doesn’t get any better than this”. That was thirty-five years ago now and, since then, things have become a great deal more evolved.

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In 1996 we were presented the Tamagotchi, a virtual pet which survives only if you choose to feed it. Admittedly, this doesn’t represent the height of technological advancement but it is relevent to Ex Machina. Alex Garland’s directorial debut looks at how much the Tamagotchi has evolved in the two decades since its conception and throws up all manner of uncomfortable questions. No longer a simple sprite with a faint craving for electronic tidbits, it is now a beautiful woman, programmed with thought patterns, responses, and desires all of her own.

Alex Garland photographed in London last month by Phil Fisk for the Observer New Review.

“In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame, the good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

It has been a long time coming for Garland. Best known for writing The Beach, from which Danny Boyle adapted a feature-length film, he went on to pen screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, two more sci-fi movies which emerged from Boyle’s canon just after the turn of the millennia. Since then, things have been remarkably quiet for Garland but, like any mad scientist worth their salt, he’s been tucked away in a secure lab, working on his magnum opus. You could say he’s something of a Victor Frankenstein of sorts which seems particularly fitting given the plot of Ex Machina and themes explored. Let us not forget Stanley Kubrick, whose influence can be seen here without question. Indeed, it would appear that Garland’s film is encoded using a chip pulled straight from The Shining.

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The inspiration just keeps on coming and, barely a minute into the opening frames, we meet our Charlie Bucket. He appreciatively grabs his Golden Wonka Ticket in the form of an exclusive invite to a secure location in the American wilderness to meet and break bread with the CEO of the world’s largest search engine, Bluebook. Before he can dash home grinning and inform his grandparents that they will not be required to top-and-tail, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked away in a private helicopter to commence his annual leave. However, there’s not a solitary popping candy bar in sight. Just a lifetime’s supply of beer.

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“It’s funny. You know. No matter how rich you get, shit goes wrong. You can’t insulate yourself from it. I used to think it was death and taxes you couldn’t avoid, but it’s actually death and shit.”

He meets bearded billionaire cum Jehovah, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a prodigy programmer who hit pay dirt at the tender age of thirteen, and now lives a reclusive life at his purpose-built automated smart condo, packed to its solar-paneled roof with all manner of future-savvy gadgetry and, of course, any current projects being undertaken. One such programme is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an optically pleasing bare nodes robot girl cooped up in one of his research chambers. After an awkward introduction whereby Nathan reminds Caleb that he just wants to shoot the shit and isn’t interested in long-winded cyber chat, the real reason for Caleb’s selection begins to become clear.

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This lucky star has been personally selected to administer The Turing Test, an analysis of whether or not A.I. can become truly aware. Just like Willy Wonka, we’re not sure whether the Great Glass Elevator goes to Nathan’s top floor, but Caleb throws caution to the wind and signs the confidentiality agreement, trusting that he is about to become part of something truly monumental. He is.

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All three key characters have biblical names. Ava is little more than Eve remixed, Nathan was a prophet, and Caleb a spy sent to evaluate the Promised Land by Moses. Hold onto that thought as, despite any fanciful wiring, Ex Machina is essentially the old testament for dummies. And what a smart fucking film it is too.

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“It is what it is… It’s Promethean man.”

Vintage Shakespeare also gets a run-out and, in particular, his closing verse, The Tempest, which also featured a domain master, his stunning pseudo-daughter who had never been kissed, and a fellow of which she becomes infatuated. That is essentially what plays out here and, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein eventually received the Rocky Horror treatment, Ex Machina heralds our new age with its own interpretation of that classic fable. Garland is more than aware that technology is moving at breakneck speed and makes that story accessible for the download generation but, critically, keeps it accessible for any technophobes. While his tale is both fiercely intelligent and thought-provoking, it isn’t looking to blind you with science, and Nathan’s character is integral to keeping things simple.

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“I am God”

In stark contrast to Caleb’s elongated gangly frame, Nathan is compact, toned, and works tirelessly between Budweisers to ensure that his body remains a temple. While his visitor has been flexing that frontal lobe in front of his desk top, he’s been working on his biceps and engaging in regular bouts of one-sided copulation with curiously mute and blank behind the eyes personal house maid Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno).

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What could be more intimate a prospect than two attractive suitors meeting for the first time in private quarters and getting to know one another? That is precisely what happens as slack-mouthed Caleb finally gets to meet Frankenstein’s monster and there’s not a nut or bolt to be seen. Instead, she’s a smoothly rounded mass of elaborate receptors, each wired for emotion by her fearful master and every last node surging in unison. I’ve never before desired to deflower a robot and a simple hand job from Johnny Five felt too dicey an endeavor after watching Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed when I was seven. However, Ava even comes packaged with her very own workable vagina and Caleb never need concern himself with pubic hair becoming entangled in his teeth.

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While romance blossoms in the honeymoon suite, Nathan is busy drinking himself numb and breaking out all manner of audacious disco dance steps with Kyoto. Isaac is superb throughout, evidently worn down by the lack of human interaction in his subterranean fortress, he is impossible not to grow fond of as it appears as though he craves a little male company and just has an unorthodox way of going about it. Indeed, he feels more instantly agreeable than Caleb, and hides any skullduggery well through insistent waves of indifference.

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“Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you”

Ava warns Caleb about her creator and also drops a few subtle hints that she is looking for a good hard defrag. Vikander’s performance is startling, all fluxed movements, angled gestures, head tilts, and precision actions, but very much living and breathing thanks to one particularly expressive part of her body. She reflects a sea of sentiment, despite being provided with little else than her eyes to emote with. Indeed, the moment when she reveals the attire she would wear in the implausible event of an actual date with Caleb, she shows more fragility and yearning than either of her male counterparts, despite being merely a synthetic. She also single-handedly brings the very best out of Gleeson.

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“Some people believe language exists from birth. And what is learned is the ability to attach words and structure to the latent ability.”

Of all the characters, sexy zomboid Kyoto excluded, it is his which is the most troublesome to take to our hearts. This is no blight on his performance, which is excellent, but he has the most significant voyage of discovery to undertake, starting out as a switched off drone before eventually letting down his firewall. It’s only natural that we should have to warm to him but, as he gives in to his body’s natural pleas for something unprocessed, it becomes a pleasure to watch him reboot. Ava has really done a number on him and he’s already thinking of android babies in alloy diapers and long weekends cozying up by the rechargable docking station.

Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow Ava

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The director ensures that he wrings every last drop out of emotion out of a potentially cold set-up and tackles confinement, submission, and liberation in a manner that remains accessible throughout, thanks to its spirited leads. The techno palace itself sits amidst a virtual nirvana but, behind the screens, resembles more of a new age prison than theater of dreams. Ubiquitous security cameras collect their data, while glass restrictions deny us from that elusive first kiss and remind us why we’re really present. Is Ava truly sentient? Come to think of it, is Caleb sentient? If Nathan carries on knocking back the liquor, will be misplace his own sentience? And what of Kyoto? Is she aware?

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“I am become death, The Destroyer of Worlds.”

Garland does far more here than simply conforming to type and his smartly observed and, most critically, human screenplay often strays from the usual story beats and explores some place fresh and exciting. What could have ended up a pretentious exercise in time-worn monotony becomes something far more tangible courtesy of inspired writing and implementation. While Rob Hardy’s photography is both slick and composed and, the score by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, far less than chilly, it ironically boils down to the human heart and Garland manages to tap into that incalculable resource. This is aided, in no diminutive manner, by Vikander’s extraordinary performance as the want-away girl whose dreams may be synthesized but consist of more than being prodded and poked for her master’s sick amusement and ultimately booted down.

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“Why is it up to anyone?”

The conclusion is immensely satisfying and achieves its stripes without overly pandering to its audience. Indeed, there seems no more fitting a note to end on, particularly given that technology is still something we cannot hope to understand fully. I exited feeling as though I too had been under observation and, after 108 minutes of lockdown, somehow managed to learn something more about myself, that being, that I’m just a tiny node in the circuit. Whether we like it or not, evolution waits for no man. The closer humanity gets to punching the clock, the more we are hurtling towards our terminal shutdown. And I’d take that fate willingly for a single stolen evening with Ava.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: What we have here is effectively a four-strong cast and, considering half of them are androids, that doesn’t leave much room for a splatter fest. One scene in particular may make you cringe however as Caleb has his very own T-100 moment. The visual effects are absolutely seamless without exception and an absolute joy to behold. Meanwhile, those searching for flesh pleasures will find much here to pre-load their memory banks for later. Don’t worry fellas, should your wife catch you in the act of a little Ex Machina based self-molestation, just remind her that she’s “only a robot”.

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It’s only a matter of time before it happens. Who knows what kind of cybernetic procreation is already underway behind closed doors? You may believe that robosex is something we will never see in our lifetimes but that’s what they thought about the apocalypse and then Skynet came along and created their monster. I reckon Bill Gates has already felt those alloy contractions around his penile conductor and I have to hold my hands up here. If I had even a millionth of his $72 billion fortune, I’d have my dick in a droid before you could say “I think my lenses are dirty”. If you need any more convincing then feast your nodes on these synthetics sirens and I’ll be seeing you in the testing chamber.

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